When Sunday’s Tribune devoted an entire arts section to the proposition that the unwashed hordes are taking over the art world via the Internet, I didn’t expect to come across the best newspaper article of the week. I definitely didn’t expect it to be a dissenting ode to amateurism from a classical music critic, a genre that’s in thrall (probably to excess) to virtuosity and the cult of the performer. But that’s what John von Rhein gave me in a piece titled “Non-professionals care more about music.” 

The other pieces weren’t as friendly to nonprofessionals. Art critic Alan Artner writes: “Everybody has opinions on movies, television and popular music, and anyone long could feel free to express them; hesitancy was shown mainly in regard to more difficult areas such as the visual arts or classical music. But the world of radio, blogs and podcasts has dissolved any such restraint, making commentary on things artistic plentiful.”

I am still awaiting my critic’s license, so I won’t try to unpack that, and apparently neither should you. I am, after all, writing this on a blog; if I were informed and intelligent, this would be on a piece of paper. But when Artner writes “anyone could long feel free to express” their opinions of the Popular Arts but not the High Arts, as if that’s a lifelong burden he’s had to bear, well, it just gives me the willies.

It’s worth noting that the idea of critics being their own professional class is a very 20th century one. More important, the idea that the rest of us are purely consumers — of the artistic works of one very small professional class and the critical works of another —  is also very recent. So it was refreshing, even moving, to see the Trib‘s classical music critic point out that a “couple of centuries ago, to call a classical musician an amateur was to pay him or her a compliment.”

There have been professional artists since ancient times, but before the age of mechanical reproduction, not to mention cheap, fast transportation, the vessels for many of their greatest works were amateurs. Before anyone could purchase a copy of Dinu Lipatti playing Chopin, or Mel Gibson as Hamlet, people were reliant on themselves or their friends for their daily dose of the arts.

I’d argue that the commercialization of art has, if anything, put the great tradition of amateurism at risk, and that an audience that understands enough about art to make bad art will be much more appreciative of good art than a passive, if tasteful, mass of consumers.

So when Julia Keller writes “if everyone’s a poet, then nobody is,” it not only fails to make sense–if I start writing doggerel, does Billy Collins have to get a job pumping gas?–it seems totally counterproductive to supporting a vibrant art scene. Keller is willing to admit that professionals start out as amateurs, but she’s still working under the assumption that professionalism is the be-all and end-all of the arts. “Walter Mosley, one of the niftiest mystery writers around, has released a new book called This Year You Write Your Novel (Little, Brown, 2007). My only qualm is that people who read it may think they can then write like Mosley. As if.”

Yeah, as if. Burn. Who do you think you are, reader (and that is your role, after all), trying to write.

I for one welcome the proliferation of new voices. It’s a cacophony, sure, but that’s because the technology’s so new that people are just starting to figure out what to do with it. As with all markets, it will stabilize. And if the critics don’t want to help me sort through it, I’m sure I can find a few enlightened amateurs to turn me on to the good stuff.